To:†††††††††††††††††† Classes

From:†††††††††††††† Doug Lyon

Subject:††††††††††† Characteristics of high quality papers and the grading process

I have been thinking about how I could provide advice and feedback to students regarding papers before they turned them in. Ideally, such advice and feedback would maximize the prospects of a quality paper and a correspondingly high grade. Thus, this memo represents a "philosophy of how to improve student papers before I grade them" Ė for lack of a better term. Here are a few observations that I have about the characteristics of better papers and the grading process. The better papers:

Many papers undoubtedly exemplify many of those characteristics. For example, they may be well researched and make a number of interesting points. However, there may be times when one or more of the characteristics may be lacking. For instance, content and exposition are frequently inextricably linked. When exposition falters, content disappears to a reader unable to grasp the author's exact point. While that point may be quite clear in the mind of the author, it may nonetheless be obscure to the reader. Also, awkward phrasing, imprecise language, and other aspects of exposition detract from the overall impression of the paper.

Regarding grading, I do not systematically take off points for trivial miscues (e.g., no page numbers results in a 2 point penalty, etc.) or alternative ways of organizing the paper (e.g., conclusion in the front). Comments written in the paper notwithstanding, there is seldom "one thing" that results in a downward revision to the grade. I view the papers in the gestalt (i.e., in their entirety). I believe that this is the only effective and fair way to evaluate papers because grading papers is, by its nature, subjective. As a practical matter, the aspects of content and/or exposition that could be right, wrong, or somewhere in between is infinite. Hence, it is impossible to create a fair grading scale based on some deceptively objective set of grading criteria. Since the creation of a specific and comprehensive set of rules for grading papers is impossible, one must rely on judgment to assign grades. All of that said, I refer you to the "Paper Evaluation Sheet" for your use as a checklist as you write your papers. It is located on my web site at

As I noted in the syllabus, from time to time I am willing to read and comment on papers that are in a very advanced stage of development prior to the due date. I believe that my comments can both improve your final grade and enhance the learning experience. While I hope that my comments have a positive impact on your grade, they will not necessarily result in your desired grade. You may implement my suggestions and I may comment on the same issue again. My comment may not have been sufficiently comprehensive to address all of the associated issues, you may have misinterpreted my comment, or you may not have adequately addressed the issues raised in the comment. Further, I may not comment on everything that needs to be addressed in the paper. In short, there is no express or implied warranty. With those caveats in mind, let me know if you would like assistance with your papers.